The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an homage to the weird tales of old; of Lovecraft, Blackwood, and Poe: those dry, academic stories in which a man, usually quite ordinary, recounts in almost insufferable detail the events of a particularly spooky day. Thankfully, developer The Astronauts has left those bloated, stuffy accounts behind, as endearing as they can be. The Vanishing is more immersive than many of those old tales, thanks in no small part to its graphical prowess. The photogrammetry technique used to build the game’s environments creates an almost photorealistic slice of countryside. Textures are rarely, if ever, repeated, and the geography looks and feels natural, as if created by glaciers and erosion. You will believe in Red Creek Valley. The lonely valley couples with sparse dialogue and moody music to establish a perfect autumn atmosphere: it’s early October and the aspens are losing their yellow leaves beneath dark-bellied clouds above. If the game stutters now and then, it’s a small price to pay for its haunting, elegiac beauty.
And haunting it must be, for this is a weird tale after all, one of supernatural phenomenon and ancient evil. The protagonist is Paul Prospero, an investigator with a sixth sense that gives him a vague awareness of ghosts and their hatred, menace, and loss. Ethan Carter, now missing and presumably in danger, writes a letter to request Prospero’s aid. Prospero follows a trail of phantoms and murder as if they were crumbs left behind by Ethan Carter to show the way. Ghosts are but memories, Prospero suggests, and they linger at scenes of violence and horror. Most of the gameplay (though there are a few surprises) involves piecing together crime scenes using objects and ghosts left behind. They’re simple and easy to solve, but I enjoyed not having to fumble about with an inventory or losing my patience with an obscure riddle. The game isn’t so much about trying to figure out what to do next as unraveling the mystery, and although it happens without much input from the player, this is to the game’s benefit. The developers knew what they wanted the game to be, and they had no intention of carelessly throwing in a feature just to be able to claim the game has, for instance, multiple endings. The lack of interactivity can also be justified thematically.
Supernatural mysteries often end in hackneyed scenes of vague occult horror and deviltry, and while The Vanishing dodges this clich´ it does so by leaping right into another. The conceit on which the game turns is a variation on a major storytelling sin, something most amateur writers try once and, receiving only hostility in return, abandon forevermore. Beneath the clich´, however, lays a more genuine and human story about a small American family quietly decaying in an equally desolate part of the country. The Vanishing is perhaps a subtler game than it first appears upon concluding, one that lingers despite the overtly hackneyed finale. It’s almost as if the writers purposely inserted this grievous narrative mishap as a distraction to fool those who aren’t paying attention, as a sort of prank: trick or treat. Everyone will be talking about the plot when it’s the characters that matter. Ultimately, The Vanishing succeeds because this is a game not so much about characters, but people. The characterization is more nuanced and complex than many similar titles, including Gone Home, a mainstream perspective of an outsider’s world, something bound to feel false and inauthentic, though perhaps worthwhile in its own way. The Vanishing feels more authentically “other” and more honestly human. Even if the plot takes a silly turn, the characters are at their most poignant at the end. So much is accomplished with so very little: a stance, an expression, a tool held a certain way. And I shout praise, praise, praise for the writing, much of which avoids mainstream clich´s, which imbue works with a hollow, inhuman quality. The plot is there for those who (somehow) haven’t encountered anything like it, but it’s really only a vehicle to deliver a story about the fragility of a family and the dangerous resentments and hostilities that brew in the American country.
Reaching this contentious finale, however, could prove to be frustrating if you haven’t until then explored the world. Fortunately, the game begs to be explored not just for its beauty but for its mystery. There’s a sense of unpredictability — not of the wild anything-can-happen sort, but of a quieter, suspenseful nature. And while there aren’t many points of interactivity, all of them must be found in order to complete the game. The game world isn’t huge, but you might have to traverse the entire environment again just to see all of what initially seem like optional scenes. I missed just one, and I knew exactly where it was, though there’s a map for those who do not.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could have been a much more exciting and violent game, and many would probably have enjoyed that more, but I like it how it is: quiet, relaxing, and pensive. The Astronauts understand that a little subtlety goes a long way. I found myself forgiving of the amateur plot twist at the game’s conclusion and the occasionally stilted voice acting because the drama beneath is so human and, yes, haunting. The things that truly haunt us are rarely grisly demons rising from chalky pentacles or flashy spectral phenomenon, but instead the small things, like a word echoing in an abandoned house, shouted bitterly by one we love, directed at us like an arrow or the tip of a sword.